This November on VinePair, we’re celebrating everything about American Wine. From up-and-coming regions and our favorite bottles, to the challenges winemakers are facing right now, we’re turning a spotlight on the industry across the United States.
November marks VinePair’s American Wine Month, which features coverage that celebrates the many facets of wine and winemaking across the country. But what exactly makes a wine “American” to begin with? It’s a tough question to answer — and one that necessitates looking beyond geography.
In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” join hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe for a conversation about the defining factors of American wine and whether any unifying qualities exist that distinguish U.S.-made wines from the rest. Is American wine only about geography after all? Or is there something deeper at play?
Tune in to find out.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And back in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, it was great having you here.
J: It was so great to meet you.
Z: Yeah, same. It was a pleasure to get to spend some time with both of you, and Joanna, to actually meet you in person, hard as it is to believe. You podcast with someone long enough, and they feel like family. They’re either a beloved cousin in Joanna’s case, or the brother that you can’t seem to get rid of, like Adam.
A: Oh, interesting. Wow.
Z: It’s all love here. Our contentious conversations are a part of what some of our listeners enjoy, I hope.
A: Oh, I hope so.
Z: It was a lot of fun, though. Thanks for having me out for a really epic party.
A: Yeah, man, Thank you. It was a crazy epic party.
J: It was a great party.
A: Everyone was very responsible, too.
Z: It’s true. It was just the right amount of fun.
A: It was. Obviously, you enjoyed the party. Besides the party, though, what else did you drink this week that was really delicious?
Z: I would say there were two great experiences for me. One was getting a chance to visit the newer location of Dante in the West Village.
A: You’ve been to Dante before though, right?
Z: I’ve only ever been to the one on MacDougal, which is where I used to hang out as a college student.
A: It was not the Dante it is today back then, right?
Z: No. It was not that kind of Dante. It was just an Italian café where I drank a cappuccino, pretended to study, and mostly just people watched pretty regularly. The West Village location is a little bigger. It’s nice and breezy. I had two cocktails that we’ve talked about on this podcast a few times. I had a proper Negroni Bianco, and that was delicious. Then, I had two Martinis because it was that kind of day. One of Dante’s many things is their Martini hour. I had one and some friends joined. I’d finished my first Martini, so I thought, let’s just make it a two Martini kind of afternoon. That was great, and a lot of fun visiting there. One of the things that was really cool is that I went to dinner on Friday night with some college friends of mine. We went to an innocuous wine bar in Midtown. It was convenient. Some friends were coming in from Long Island, so it was near Penn Station. We wanted to be somewhere where everyone could meet. A couple of our friends in particular were pretty adamant that they wanted to dine outside, which I understand. There were limited options for a larger group sitting outside on a Friday night. We ended up at a place called Wine:30, which was fine. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was just fine. They had a really remarkable collection of old Italian wine that was very reasonably priced. It was kind of wild to be in Midtown drinking 20-year- old Barolo for $150. I understand for some listeners, that does not sound like an incredible bargain. Given what that wine would probably cost in a lot of Manhattan restaurants, I said, “Sure, I’ll buy that. That’s great.” That was really cool. How about you guys?
J: After the party, I was not drinking for a little while. The other night, I went to Katana Kitten — a bar over in the West Village — for the first time to celebrate my partner Evan’s birthday. It was great. I guess I just didn’t know what to expect from that place because it’s been on the list of World’s Best Bars, but it has a great vibe, and the drinks are excellent. We had a few different cocktails. We had the Hinoki Martini and a highball, but the standout for me was their Amaretto Sour. They serve it on a big rock with a dusting of red shiso and salt seasoning, which was really good.
A: I’ve heard that it’s amazing.
J: It was great. It’s a really cool spot. I can’t wait to go back.
A: People talk about it a lot. People have actually said they’ve stolen it and tried to recreate it at other bars around the country once they’ve had it, because it’s so well known.
J: Oh, wow. It’s so good.
Z: That’s such a fascinating thing, too, because the Amaretto Sour is one of those cocktails that is very out of style. That’s at least how I would think about it, when I would bartender or serve, or whatever. Very few people would order an Amaretto Sour. It was just wild to think that’s now a trendy drink again. It’s cool. What’s next? The Midori Sour? That would be interesting. I’m sure someone could make one that tasted OK.
A: Yeah. That’s really interesting.
Z: How about you, Adam?
A: Two cool things. The first is that I had some friends over Saturday night. We had one of our first dinner parties. I opened a really old bottle of 2001 Cab Franc from Barboursville, which was really awesome. It was very delicious. Also, last night, I went to Temple Bar.
J: Man, I saw that. I’m so jealous. I’m going next week. That was one of my favorite bars, and now is again since it’s reopened in New York.
A: Now it’s been reopened by the owners of Attaboy. It was super cool.
J: Did you have the blue Negroni?
A: I did not. I had the Gibson. My friend had a tiki cocktail they made where they split the sherries. The sherries are the main ingredient, so it’s a low-ABV tiki cocktail. It was really cool. There was a bouncer out front, and I was thinking we weren’t going to get in and it was going to be so annoying. Then, of course, they said, “Yeah, sure. Come on in.” We walked right in. We went early enough, around 9 p.m., so there wasn’t much of an issue. But also, I guess you make reservations. People are very pumped about it. It definitely was packed. Everyone was having a great time. It’s so cool.
J: It’s such a good spot.
A: It’s very exciting that it’s reopened. That’s about it for me. This week, we’re going to kick off American Wine Month on the site, our editorial theme for the month. Today, we’ll talk about the question, what is American wine? Can you define American wine? As a category, what makes it unique? It’s very tough to define. Zach, do you want to take a stab at it first? What is American wine?
Z: Sure. One of the reasons why I think we’re all interested in this conversation is that someone out there is thinking, “Duh, it’s wine from America.” Yes, geographically, it’s made within the borders of America. Fine.
A: A lot of other people from other parts of America will say, “South American wine is also American wine.”
Z: That’s true. I think the way we are generally using it on our site is wine from the United States. How do you define it? Can you make generalizations about it? Why that’s interesting to me is that, as the wine industry in the United States has matured, grown, and expanded, some of the things that were said about wine from the United States a few decades ago or even a decade ago don’t really hold true. They were these sweeping generalizations, and what most people thought of when they thought of wine from this country was wine from California. Even more specifically, people mostly thought of wine from certain parts of Northern California. If I were to start by trying to codify some kind of definition or generalization about wine from the U.S., I would say that it embodies three fundamental ideas. The first one is freedom. I don’t mean to be a flag-waving patriot here. However, one of the things that is appealing to so many winemakers in so many different areas with so many different stylistic approaches is the idea that — because wine in this country is still a relatively new thing and a growing industry where we’re exploring and pushing boundaries — there’s this incredible opportunity to do almost whatever you want. As long as you can make the wine well, hopefully, and you can find a market for it, there’s no reason that you can’t center your wine region or winery around Petit Manseng, St. Pepin in the Great Lakes, Cabernet Franc in Washington State, or whatever the heck you want.You’re not totally beholden to established ideas about what great wine is. The second thing to me is that you are seeing more and more development of this idea that wine can be a part of a place. I don’t want to get into a terroir conversation. It’s in the same way that craft beer has cracked the code of feeling very local wherever you are. Even if some of these local craft breweries do have a regional or national presence, they still mostly feel like they’re of the place they’re from. Wine, too, in a growing number of places in the country, can be connected to the region that surrounds it. Wine isn’t a thing that you have to get imported from other parts of the world. It can be a part of your local economy. There’s a third thing that’s really interesting to me, it’s that wine is not just a product. It’s not just a beverage, It’s an experience. The United States is so connected to the experience of tasting rooms, visiting wineries, and all of that in a way that I think is not as true in much of Europe. Where it is true in Europe is largely because of the influence of the wine industry in this country. That’s me talking a lot. How about you guys?
J: When I was thinking about this prompt earlier, I was thinking that there are probably certain winemakers or regions that have helped define the “American” style of that wine. I think of a Napa Cab being one of them. Maybe there’s Riesling in the Finger Lakes, or White Zinfandel and that style that gained popularity in the mid-’70s. They’re defining certain grapes or wines in a distinctive American way or style. I’m not sure there’s a more comprehensive definition for American wine or American-style wine. As you said, I don’t know if you can just make a sweeping generalization for American wine.
A: I hear what you’re saying, Zach, about all the different abilities for experimentation. I would say that it still is very much defined by a country dominated by basically one state. Come at me, Oregon and Washington, but it’s still really dominated by California and hyper-focused on just a few very classic French varietals. There’s Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, basically. That, at this point, is American wine. There is a desire to go past that. There are some really cool people that are now doing Picpoul, like Randall Grahm. As a whole, it’s not huge. That is why in every vineyard across the country in developing regions, you will find a Cabernet Sauvignon because they think that’s what the American population is looking for. You can go up to the Finger Lakes, out to the North Fork, down to Georgia, where they’re making wine, and you’ll see it.
J: But, in that very specific style.
A: Yes. Or, they’re trying to make it like that because they think that’s what’s going to sell. That is why I think there has been, until recently, a reluctance to say, “We’re in Georgia. Maybe, in the vineyards in Georgia, a crazy Spanish varietal will grow better,” for example. The American wine consumer has just begun to evolve and has really only thought of these as being the wines to drink. I think the American wine that we know is still represented by those four wine grapes.
J: I think that’s important to mention, Adam. It’s the American wine consumer’s impression of American wine.
A: Yes. It’s their impression, and I think that impression is basically formed by the wines coming out of California. There are small portions of people who will say that they’re actually being informed by the cool Rieslings made in the Finger Lakes or, in your case Zach, the interesting wines coming out of the Yakima Valley. There are small groups of those people. The majority of American consumers, though, are influenced by California. California is American wine.
J: What do you think it would take to change that?
A: That’s a loaded question. I don’t know. Maybe California has an earthquake and becomes an island? I don’t mean that, my California people. I really love California. It’s just such a dominant player in the world of wine.
J: Will it take California changing their wine to break that mold?
A: I don’t think they want to.
J: No reason to, right?
A: Yeah. Zach, what do you think it would take for California to not be the dominant wine region in the United States and defining what American wine is?
Z: Outside of the doom and gloom situations, one thing we’re seeing, slowly but surely, is the percentage of American wine that is produced in California is becoming a slightly smaller slice of the pie. That’s just because other states are producing more wine. California is still, by far, the dominant producer in the country. I think with California, and certainly with some of these regions, you are already butting up against a problem that’s happening for a variety of reasons. There’s an inability to expand production more. As America becomes more and more of a wine-drinking nation, which has definitely happened over the last couple of decades, I think you are seeing more interest in wine from the U.S. and the world over. I think that there is an undeniable fact that what you are saying is true, Adam. California’s preeminence, as a bulk producer from certain places and also from the premium regions in other places, are both defining American wine consumers’ preferences towards wine. One thing that could change is this idea of breaking the hegemony of those few grapes in a little bit. You’re starting to see people, even within Napa Valley and other regions, trying to highlight other varieties. There’s a broader recognition across the wine drinking public that there is more out there than just Cabernet Sauvignon or just Merlot. Whether that ever really changes things at the root level, I’m not totally sure. I do think you are seeing more people want to connect with wine differently. I think you also see the inaccessibility or just the eye-popping price tag of taking a trip to Napa. That is going to, and is, driving people to some other regions. Some of those regions might still be in California, of course, but others might be in other parts of the country. If you are someone who says, “I want to go on a wine-tasting trip, but I don’t want to be spending thousands of dollars on it,” you might look at the Texas Hill Country, Arizona, the Great Lakes, or wherever.
A: I think they will. This wasn’t supposed to be a podcast about how California defines the American wine industry, but it is, and they will. In the very famous 1972 song off of “Exile on Main St.,” the greatest album the Stones ever wrote, Mick Jagger sang in “Sweet Virginia,” “Thank you for your wine, California.” He sang that before the Judgment of Paris. It was already a state that was very well known for its wine internationally. California is American wine. It just is.
J: Yeah. Zach said it before, too. For other countries of the world, that’s probably their perception of American wine as well.
A: For sure. California is what created the winery experience there. They basically created the idea of winery and restaurant and tourism. That’s what’s then been exported to all of the other American wine regions. It’s now being exported to places like France and Italy that did not have that kind of culture yet. That’s all California.
Z: Yes, absolutely.
J: You can play bocce and cornhole.
A: Exactly. There’s these third spaces. People are serving burgers and pizza with wine. You would never find a pizzeria in a lot of these Italian wineries because they drink beer with pizza. That’s just not part of their culture. That’s the California cuisine. It’s completely influenced the kind of food people expect they’ll get at wineries. It’s all California cuisine. That’s American wine.
Z: We don’t call it California wine month, so maybe we should look a little bit at other places.
A: The conversation is, “How do you define American wine?” That’s how I’m defining American wine. It’s California wine.
Z: Fair enough. You’re the man who just opened a 20-year-old bottle of wine from Virginia.
A: I love that wine. I think it’s really interesting. The majority of wine drinkers you tell that you’re drinking wine from Virginia will say, “There’s no way that’s good.” Even if I’m drinking a wine from New York State, people will say, “Really?” If you go down south to Atlanta, where there’s one of the largest annual wine auctions called the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction, it’s considered to be an epic wine event in the country. No one is auctioning off wines from Virginia and the Finger Lakes. These are great wine regions, but they are auctioning off crazy wines from Napa, Sonoma, and other parts of the world.
Z: I wonder if this is a topic where we’re seeing a little bit of a change. I don’t doubt that at the top of the wine market, yes, the most expensive wines produced in the United States are all produced in California. You may get some very high-end Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. Basically, if you’re talking about the absolute top of the pyramid in America, you’re talking about California wine. That isn’t what most people are drinking day-to-day. People are not drinking $1,000 bottles of wine.
A: No. They’re drinking red blends from California.
Z: Yeah. True. The point is that I do think you’re seeing, in the expansion of these wine regions throughout the country, more interest. Maybe it’s just locally. Maybe it’s not national or international at this point in a lot of these places. Certain passionate people might say, “I believe that I can make great wine in the Finger Lakes.” Most people who go into that business at least have to think they can sell it. If you’re in a wine region like the Finger Lakes, which doesn’t have a huge population center right there, you’re probably counting on being able to sell it to people besides those who live within walking distance of the lakes or whatever. For the most part, that is what we are seeing. There’s an appetite that we’ve grown in our country. People throughout the country are looking to meet that demand locally, or at least regionally. It’s true that California is going to be the access and entry point for a lot of drinkers, especially if you’re not particularly near a wine region or you’re outside of the country. That’s fine. It is by far the biggest producing state. It has some of the most famous regions and wineries. At the same time, I think we are missing something if we are as reductionist as to say, because California is the big player in this country, that all American wine is California wine. We wouldn’t want to say that about beer. Not all American beer is macro lager, even if that’s the biggest player in the category.
A: No, but if you want to talk about influence, then yes, all wine in America right now is currently influenced by the wine being produced in California. 100 percent. When you look at craft beer, there was a time when all the beers being produced were being influenced by the beers being produced on the West Coast. That was mostly, again, in California. Then it changed and all the beers were being influenced by wines coming out of places like Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. There are these East Coast IPA beers. If we’re having a conversation about the question, “Should we be paying attention to other regions in America other than California?” I’m happy to have that conversation. If we’re having a conversation about “What is the definition of American wine?” Then, it’s California wine.
Z: Fair enough.
J: Well, see you later.
Z: This was like 15 minutes longer than it needed to be. We should’ve started and ended there.
A: I rest my case. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions who listen to the podcast. What do you think, Joanna? Do you think I’m wrong?
J: No, I agree. It makes a lot of sense to me, and like I said earlier, I think other people from other parts of the world probably think that of American wine as well. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider these other regions. I think they’re important. Like Zach said, maybe we’re moving in a different direction as they gain popularity and recognition. I do think that, for this particular prompt and conversation, that seems to make sense to me.
Z: I have one last thought here. I’ll leave it at this. If the United States was analogous to Europe and each of these states or regions were their own country, we wouldn’t necessarily lump California and the Finger Lakes together any more than we lump France and Germany together in general as a broader political unit.
A: Well, they did go to war against each other.
Z: Well, you might be aware of a certain civil war in this country, for example.
A: Was California even really a player at that point?
Z: No, not so much, I guess. In any case, the point I’m trying to make is that I think if you were to talk about European wine in aggregate, it is often through a France-centric lens. If we want to analogize France and California in these two examples, I can see where you’re coming from. Obviously, you don’t believe that we should only be talking about California wine. It is true that there is a way in which, because this landmass is still currently one political unit —
A: That’s pretty dark there, Zach. “Currently.”
Z: I don’t know when people are going to listen to this. I don’t know what the future holds. You talked about a gigantic earthquake, so I can talk about the political dissolution of the United States. In any case, I do think that you’re right. California casts a very long shadow at a minimum. I also think that it’s important for all of us to remember that it’s a big country. There’s a lot going on. While California still kind of rules the roost, I think it’s interesting to think about the ways in which other regions have both leaned into their California-ness and also tried to break away from it.
A: What I would challenge you to bring to the discussion next week is this: Tell me what would be the U.S. state that would become more influential in the future of American wine than California?
Z: I’m not sure that’s possible. California is the biggest state that produces wine. That’s partially just a landmass thing.
A: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case. I agree with all the things you’re saying. I think I would also argue, on the European side, that I think France has cast a very large shadow.
J: Me too.
A: That’s why you see so many of these wineries around Europe who go to France to study winemaking, bring the French influence into their wines, et cetera. For some reason, they’re getting more praise. They’re being more successful. I was just in Greece touring a lot of the wineries there, and all they wanted to tell me was about how their most recent winemaker had gone and worked in France. He had learned that way of winemaking. I thought, “Well, maybe your way is also cool.”
Z: I think we’ve seen that here with UC Davis and a lot of people training in California and Napa. Just like in Europe and in places like Greece, where you’re seeing a little bit of a pivot away from that, I think you are also seeing more homegrown and home-taught winemaking in other parts of the country. That includes the opening and development of great viticulture and vinification programs in universities throughout the country. There’s a great program at Cornell. There are great programs here in Washington State. There’s all kinds of stuff.
A: Very cool. Let us know what you think about this episode. Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us how much California wine you drink. I promise you, this was not brought to you by the state of California. Zach and Joanna, I’ll talk to you on Friday.
J: Thanks, guys.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.